Monday, November 18, 2019

The Malcontent: Keep Essays Weird

Dear Readers,

If you've been with us a while, you know that one of our recurring features is The Malcontent, in which we invite writers to put on the black hat, be a villain, embrace their dark sides, and pseudonymously say whatever they want to say about whatever. When you wear the hat, you wear a persona. Well, one always wears a persona when we essay (the essay I being a subset or a superset of the writer I). When we put on the black hat and play The Malcontent, we're just more explicit about this role-playing.

Sometimes the world of creative nonfiction is just a little too nice, since so many of us are both readers and writers of essays, and since in nonfiction we operate (apparently) without the safety net of plausible deniability with regard to our Is.

That's mostly great, and it feels good to be part of a network of mostly supportive writers and editors and reviewers and publishers. BUT: we also understand that anger or irritation can be a tool. Sometimes writing under a pseudonym can unlock our ability to say some things about subjects that the rest of the world sometimes believes are sacrosanct. Or sometimes we aren't in a position personally or professionally to want to take the chance in expressing an unpopular opinion or speaking back to power—or whatever.

Thus the black hat awaits. Put it on and be a little sharper, darker self for a little while. When you wear the hat, people only see the hat, not the face underneath it.

As such, Malcontent pieces are published pseudonymously as The Malcontent or, if the author prefers, under the author's name ("Jonathan Franzen writing as The Malcontent"). It's up to the writer. (We will never reveal who is writing as the Malcontent unless she chooses to reveal herself.)

If you want to try on the hat, you know where to find us. So, without further ado, here's our latest Malcontent.


I'm writing this in a fit of anger in the middle of the night. A friend just wrote me asking my advice. Their ridiculously good first book will be published by a University Press that I will refrain from naming here. They have run into a "sticky point" with the editors there regarding the layout of one of their essays (which uses footnotes).

Here's what my friend wrote:
They're telling me formatting footnotes is too complicated and they don't "do it" as a press. They've suggested either stacking all the notes in the back of the book, stacking them at the end of each chapter, or inserting them beneath each corresponding paragraph [in the essay]. 
Since you've recently read the book, I wonder if you have thoughts. Should I cut them and incorporate them into the text as much as possible? Is the flipping back not as obstructionist as I think? Are there other formatting possibilities you can think of that I might recommend?  
Here is my response, edited a bit to redact some identifying information (I don't want to get in my friend's way here—this is a first book and I'm not writing this with their permission—but I do want to talk about some shit for our readers, who are often enough writers, and who may in fact run into similar issues in advocating for the formal decisions in their own essays as they move from manuscript to publishing, and also fuck this press and fuck this editor):


So what the fuck? A university press can’t fucking lay out footnotes? It’s not that complicated. I mean, it’s more complicated than endnotes or not doing them all, but that was part of the form of the piece when they accepted the book. I mean, you know I’m not always a big fan of footnotes if they can be done another way without losing meaning, but I don’t see how that essay wouldn’t be harmed by changing it to endnotes or incorporating them into the text. I mean, fucking do some book design, you assholes! It’s just one essay! It's just fucking footnotes! A university press ought to be able to accommodate a common academic convention.

Plus, I mean, [University Press] has published [multiple significant experimental essay anthologies] that were filled with weird formatting stuff. This is way easier. In fact, in [recent experimental essay anthology], they published two essays, both with footnotes.

What I’m saying is that you should 100% push back on this bullshit, which I think you already know from your email. If you think the footnotes have to stay footnotes, they have to stay footnotes. I talk about the difference in workshop all the time: there's a big difference between readerly interaction with footnotes (that readers see on every page and can choose to read or not, and they flip back and forth only between text blocks on one spread) and endnotes (which require the reader to find the end of the essay and flip back and forth across pages. Endnotes are way easier to ignore (which is not what you want here, I don't think). You can explain to them (more gently than this, probably, but be direct) that the design of the essay is part of the meaning of the essay, and you can’t change the design for convenience without fucking up the meaning of the essay, and they need to figure it the fuck out. They agreed to publish this essay; you shouldn't be obliged to change its meaning for them to publish it.

It may well be that if you explain it to them gently that they need to figure it the fuck out, they’ll figure it the fuck out. It’s not that hard. It’s not as easy as some of the book design they might be asked to do, but this is not an outlandish request. You’re not asking for only green M&Ms. You’re not being a diva here: you’re protecting your turf as a writer, which is the making and control of meaning, and that sometimes meaning includes making design choices.

They knew what this essay looked like when they accepted it for publication. They looked at it and said, hey, this is cool. We believe in this and want to publish this. If they didn't "do" footnotes, why the fuck did they accept it? I mean to say that it is not optional to strip it of its formatting and assume that doesn't change anything. An editorial suggestion would be one thing, but it's not okay to just flat-out say that this isn't something they "do" (and it's even more egregious when they've done it—and much wackier shit—before). That's coercive and it's stupid.

I’ll email their asses if I need to, but this is a pile of crap. You may need to escalate this to someone more senior at the press (and I can help with that if you want; if they won't listen to you, maybe they'll listen to me, one benefit of having an established career). As you can tell this is something I feel pretty strongly about, because it’s something I’ve run into a lot of times in my own work in various ways, being told by someone in production who doesn't understand that sometimes the tools of production are the writer's tools—design is writing—and they can't just treat an essay as "content" that can be done whatever with however is most convenient for their workflow. It's not hard. It's just slightly more complicated, and it speaks to how a lot of presses are used to treating writing (as content, not as art), and it really pisses me off.

To be fair, I guess, a lot of writers also don't treat their writing as art and don't stand up for the aesthetic choices they make, but sometimes that's also because they don't feel like they can. And it really pisses me off that an editor would do this to a younger writer with a first book. You may not feel like you have agency here but you do. And I know from our conversations about this essay and this book that you know exactly what you're doing with this essay and its formatting decisions. I also know that you're not someone who's going to just give that up, and so I want to underline for you—and for whoever reads this—that you totally should not. I mean, you don't need to be an asshole about it (yet). (But clearly I feel like I do, because I've been taken advantage of in the past by editors who figured I wouldn't stand up for some of my aesthetic or design decisions, and in some cases I didn't, and in some of those cases they were right, but in some of those cases I was wrong not to assert myself. And, you know what, if I could take that back, I would, and that's partly why I'm writing this here.)

For their part, it's not just an obnoxious use of their (perceived) power. It's also just flat-out wrong (they literally do do footnotes: see the [redacted example]) and, what's more, it's lazy. I know it's not simple to format text in a way that goes against their house style, and I'm sure it’d be easier for them if you changed the whole way the essay works to get along, but you know what, that’s fucking on them to figure it out. They have typographers. They have a production department. They may be just a university press, but formatting an essay with footnotes is an achievable goal. And it's a fucking academic style, a common one, and what's more, it's the style of the art you've made and fought for in the past.

Best case scenario: you just need to push back here and I think if they understand you feel strongly about this they’ll figure it out.

But honestly, I feel strongly enough that if it comes down to it and they just can’t figure out how to do it (like seriously, wtf), have them send me the blank pages with all the typography choices (font, leading, text block size, etc) in an indesign file and I can lay it out in 45 minutes for you and send them back the properly typeset pages, and they can go on with their bullshit limited workflow.

It takes a little bit of care to do it right, sure, but I don’t think they can treat this as optional. I’m serious: I’m happy to do it if they won’t. They just need to layout the rest of the book and send me the indesign file and fonts and text and it’s not a big deal to do the footnotes. I can do it in an afternoon.

But it's also the larger point that's bullshit: they must have someone on their staff (or, fuck it, hire a freelancer for $200) who can figure this the fuck out. If not, what are they doing publishing academic or artistic work in the first place? And what are they doing offering to publish your work knowing how it looked.

I mean, I understand that production costs money, and a more complicated production might cost a little more money, but a publisher should be prepared to publish the work they accepted. Or if not, that should be part of the editorial conversation before anyone is asked to sign any contracts. That didn't happen here, so they don't get to just not "do" it.

I have often needed to just design my own pages very often in the past. That's worth it to me (plus that way at least I know it's done right), but letting the writer mess with a file once it's in design is something that many (most?) presses really hate doing.

They don't like to let the writer have access to the design. That's not what the writer is supposed to do, I was made to understand. The writer just writes the text. Their people design the text. (Implicit in this is that the text is just the words, and nothing else is the text, not the formatting or the design or the spacing or the leading or the whitespace, or whatever other cool imaginative shit the writer may be employing.)

I was told, with my first book, when I complained about something as small as the font (one of the very few points of agency I felt like I had), that "our designer has been typesetting books longer than you've been alive." Which may have been true, but, you know what, their typesetting sucked. The font obscured meaning. It did not amplify meaning.

Good typography should amplify meaning or at least get the fuck out of the way of meaning. That's the same case with design. If it doesn't serve the writing, what the fuck does it serve?

But I didn't feel then that I had the agency to say what I'm saying now, which is probably why I'm saying it now, and fucking loud: I knew better. I know better. You know better. That would have been a great OK Boomer moment. Maybe it still can be one for you.

The issue you're having with [University Press] is specific to you, but it's also not. It's a power dynamic that I see all the time (and as someone who runs a small press and also does most or all of the book design and layout, I'm also aware of the limitations on the production end, but in no world would I ever consider just telling an author that we can't do a simple formatting thing because it's not something we "do." That conversation ought to be, at the very least, a conversation, which goes two ways. When we have a weird formatting thing that the author does, I try to figure out how to make what we do accommodate what they do, and that's what University Press ought to fucking do. I mean, they have people they pay to do design. They have a paid staff.

It's also just stupid not to "do" footnotes. I mean, I know footnotes aren't always the best design choice for an essay (it's hard to get out of that DFW shadow, most obviously, in the literary essay) but that's not what they're saying.

And what you should say back to them, or at least what I'm trying to say back to them is a resounding FUCK YOU.

Maybe you should say something gentler, like hey, I totally understand where you're coming from and I understand that this isn't a common thing to have to deal with in production, but in this essay footnotes are the way I make meaning. I can explain why they are the most efficient and effective choice if necessary, but, tl;dr, they're part of the art, they can't be shifted to endnotes without...and fucking FUCK YOU this shouldn't be hard for a University Press to figure out how to do this. This decision is just not negotiable.

Or just direct them to this essay and maybe it'll make the point for you, and you can be the good cop if you want to be the good cop. I'm fine with being the bad cop. I haven't been the bad cop often enough. I like wearing aviators: I look good in them.

What I really want to say, though, is to you, and to everyone else who wants to try out the tools of design in their essays: design means, and design decisions mean, and as the writer you can take control of that. Or not. You don't have to! You can just leave it alone and write regular text! It's fine to leave it alone! Writing regular prose isn't easy either! But it's also fine to play with whatever tools you find, and you see them on the screen in your word processor so why shouldn't you fucking play with them, and especially when you get them to do something cool, something that maybe can't be done any other way, well, you do you. And you should stand up for that you. And an ethical publisher should publish your work well. Some publishers will, even if these assholes won't.

As you can tell, if it comes to it, I'd be totally happy either to solve this problem with an hour of design or blow them the fuck up if you want me to. I'm happy to name names if I need to. This is important.

Besides, [University Press], you don’t get to be a press that’s publishing formally innovative nonfiction without being willing to fucking publish formally innovative nonfiction. Which is a way of saying that if you want to publish art, then you have to publish art and not strip the art out of it.

That may mean being a little bit more flexible with your process or understanding that production may take a little longer or be a little more expensive.

Production shouldn't be the throttle of imagination. That just leads to boring books and bad art. And that's not what publishing or writing (which can include designing/typesetting) ought to be about. I hope you make the right decision here, [University Press editors].


At this point, the Malcontent took the black hat off, took a couple breaths and calmed down. Their usual midwestern reserve returned, kind of, for now.

The Malcontent is an Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on the black hat, be a villain, embrace their dark sides, and pseudonymously say whatever they want to say about whatever. (Our only guideline is that we try to avoid punching down.) If you want to try on the hat, you know where to find us. 

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